Minnesota is considering new extremes to curtail a dreaded deer disease, including the possibility of paying deer bounties to hunters and landowners.
“Does it come down to incentives?” said Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “It’s definitely on the table.”
Cornicelli on Tuesday released a stepped-up plan to contain the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in southeastern Minnesota by thinning the local herd.
When the neurological disease likened to mad cow disease in cattle was detected in deer in 2016, the DNR thought the outbreak could be shut down. Now the agency is describing the outbreak as “persistent” and is working to stop the disease from establishing itself in new areas.
“It’s not going away,” Cornicelli said, “but we have a real opportunity to knock it back.”
Two special hunts were announced for later this month, and the DNR said federal sharpshooters will be hired to supplement the extra harvest. The idea is to remove as many infected deer from the landscape as possible and cull the herd to reduce transmission of the disease from deer to deer.
DNR officials will detail the strategy and provide information about CWD at a public meeting Dec. 18 in Preston, the epicenter of the disease management zone. The special weekend hunts on Dec. 21-23 and Dec. 28-30 will be open to nonresidents of Minnesota, and tags will be sold for $2.50 each. Boundaries for the hunt will exceed last year’s lines to account for two cases of CWD outside last year’s zone.
CWD testing of harvested deer will be mandatory and hunters won’t be allowed to haul full carcasses out of the disease management area. CWD is caused by misfolded proteins called prions that exist in the brains and spinal columns of deer. The prions also can be shed in saliva, feces, antler velvet, blood and urine.
Meanwhile, the DNR this week launched a survey of 5,000 southeastern Minnesota deer hunters.
The survey, run jointly with the University of Minnesota, asks whether hunters oppose or support state culling efforts. The survey also asks hunters whether financial incentives would boost participation.
Michelle Carstensen, the DNR’s wildlife health group leader, said the agency struggled last year to drum up widespread support for extra hunting. Fewer than 300 deer were taken in last year’s special hunts, far less than wildlife biologists wanted, she said.
Southeastern Minnesota is known for big bucks and some private landowners who have invested in quality deer habitat oppose a widespread reduction in the herd.
In addition, Cornicelli said, there’s a certain amount of apathy about CWD, partly because the disease isn’t very visible. Since 2016, 28 cases have been confirmed via tissue sampling and many of those deer appeared healthy when harvested.
He said the DNR is working with at least one prominent hunting group in southeastern Minnesota to get more “buy-in” for herd reduction.
But based on survey questions, the agency also is considering various enticements. The survey asks:
Should hunters be paid a bounty for every CWD-infected deer they kill?
Should landowners be paid to allow hunting on their property?
Should participating landowners also receive a bounty for infected deer taken on their land?
Should a hunter receive a lifetime deer hunting license for killing a CWD-positive deer.
Should there be a lottery drawing for hunters who harvest a deer?
Should the Legislature award tax breaks to landowners who allow public hunting?
Cornicelli said landowners also will be surveyed about CWD and the DNR’s ideas to thwart it.
Marty Stubstad, owner of Archery Headquarters in Rochester and a board member at Bluffland Whitetails, a hunting group in Houston County, said boosting participation in extra hunts will be difficult for the DNR. But he dislikes the idea of financial incentives.
“I see no reason to have to pay people to hunt,” he said.
State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, a lifelong deer hunter, said she’s uncertain the DNR could establish a bounty on deer. But she favors the agency’s aggressive stance and wants tougher regulation of Minnesota’s captive deer herds.
“We absolutely have to do something,” she said.